Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness David: I support the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on this amendment. I am glad he said that it is a probing amendment. We want information. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock. This all started with the nursery voucher scheme. The primary schools were anxious to get the extra money they badly needed--the £1,100--and therefore they were willing to increase class sizes to get children into the schools.

Many children are very vulnerable at that age. It is important that we know what the Government are thinking as to what is to be done about young children going into reception classes which are already probably too big and will have to be reduced. I look forward very much to hearing what my noble friend has to say.

Baroness Blatch: I had the privilege and, I would argue strongly, the pleasure of being the chairman of my local playgroup, serving approximately seven villages in my county of Cambridgeshire for eight years. Long before the voucher scheme was introduced, in the case of the local school, particularly in a county where there were falling rolls, or parts of a county where there were falling rolls, there was a tendency to take in four year-olds to bolster numbers in order to keep the teachers. For a long time, there has been pressure for four year-olds to go into those classes.

In principle I support the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. As I suspect the Minister will say, the issue is more complex than that. The noble Baroness will be aware that I asked a number of questions about provision for under five year-olds. I believe that a review is taking place--I do not know whether it has reported yet--among the endless reviews being undertaken. It has always seemed to me deeply unfair that a playgroup was confined to having one adult for every eight children, and Montessori schools and private schools were equally restricted in the number of children they could have, yet the local school could take in children with no limit whatsoever on the maximum class size. For a long time there has been an unlevel playing field.

As we move towards the proposals and policies of the present Government, that problem is thrown into relief. The policy has begun to have an effect on playgroups. The pressures mean that the numbers of children in those playgroups will reduce even more quickly as the Government guarantee education for three year-olds. That was always an aspiration of the previous government. But as that happens, the playgroups are being exhorted to think about caring for children before the parents go to work in the morning and after they return in the evening. I have enormous respect for the playgroups organisation. But if we do not watch the situation carefully, it will be turned into a kind of babyminding service rather than an educational/play organisation. Where playgroups were good, they were very good and did a great deal to pave the way for

5 May 1998 : Column 525

children moving into mainstream schools. Certainly the playgroup with which I was associated had an incredibly good relationship with the local primary school. Indeed, the headmistress or a member of the staff of the local primary school was always a member of our management committee. Therefore the relationship was a fruitful one.

Letters have gone out from the department to private nursery schools. Those bodies say that they cannot compete with the schools. The teacher/pupil ratio by which they have to abide under the rules is so great and uneconomic at the price the Government are offering in order to bring them into the scheme that they will be priced out of the market. I do not believe that it would be good for the country as a whole if playgroups, private nursery schools and, for example, Montessori schools found it impossible to continue. I understand that "top up" fees will be forbidden and that the Government will not accept those bodies into local government schemes if they levy a fee which is greater than that agreed by the local authority. That is a straitjacket that will seriously disadvantage them.

I come back to the principle of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. Many four year-olds are inappropriately accommodated in reception classes in schools. They are not ready for that. But sometimes it is about numbers. The phenomenon goes back long before the voucher scheme. It has been a feature of rural communities for a long time.

Lord Whitty: The concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and others about the appropriateness of the treatment of children below school age are shared by the Government. It is an issue of which we are well aware. We share the concern about whether reception classes are the appropriate basis for four year-olds. While the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, may be right that there may be other pressures, it is also undoubtedly true, as my noble friend Lady David and the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, indicated, that the nursery voucher scheme had the effect in some areas of encouraging LEAs and their schools to cram as many four year-olds as possible into their reception classes. We are anxious to reverse that trend.

In the Government's consideration of the early years development plans for 1998-99, we would have rejected any plan which proposed to meet our target by providing a free place for all four year-olds simply by increasing reception class intakes. We have also asked all authorities for details of the specific support their schools will provide for the younger four year-olds in reception classes.

The noble Baroness referred to a review. We have recently issued a consultation paper on the regulation of early education and childcare which addresses issues at the nursery stage such as staff ratios. Indeed, it specifically highlights our intention to review adult/child ratios for three to five year-olds in all the different settings in which they are currently taken into the system.

5 May 1998 : Column 526

As noble Lords have said, it is a hugely complex issue. The current arrangements are diverse. Therefore the consultation is an open consultation. A copy of the consultation document was placed in the Library of the House when the consultation began last month. The consultation period will last until July. That is our present position on nursery classes and the admission of four year-olds to reception classes.

The noble Lord's amendment, by implication, raises the issue to which the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, also referred: whether the presence of one child under the compulsory school age in an infant class would mean that the class is subject possibly to two different regulatory limits. I refer either to an infant class size limit as in the proposed legislation, which would state the maximum number of pupils to be taught by one teacher irrespective of the presence of support staff; or the maximum adult/child ratio for classes containing pupils below compulsory school age, which is the situation so far as concerns nursery school guidance.

We shall need to consider how best to address the issue in the light of the responses to the consultation to which I have referred on the regulation of early education and day care and on the draft guidance on class size policy. Since the noble Baroness raised the issue of playgroups, perhaps I may say that part of that consultation will include the role of playgroups and other forms of private provision in the early education plans.

I hope, therefore, that the noble Lord recognises that this consultation period addresses the issue that he raised and that in the light of that he will withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Blatch: Before the Minister sits down, perhaps I may ask a question. Referring to cramming four year-olds into reception classes, he said--I took down the words--that it is the Government's plan to reverse that trend. Where do they intend sending those four year-olds?

Lord Whitty: We hope to improve both the quality and range of nursery provision. Some of the children to which the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, referred do not fall within this category because they are effectively rising fives. But we hope that the outcome of our consultation on the nursery age provision will lead to more effective provision outside the infant school reception class.

Baroness Young: We all appreciate that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, has gone into some detail on the matter. I support the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. He raised another important issue about four year-olds in mainstream schools. My understanding is that a rising five is defined as a child who will be five in the first term of his arrival at school. That is very different from the child who has just turned four, who really is very small. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, explained that there is consultation on this matter. But it is yet another part of the Bill which is very unclear.

5 May 1998 : Column 527

I am surprised that the noble Lord needs to consult about the adult/child ratio. Why should not the regulations laid down for private organisations be exactly the same for public organisations? If they are not good enough for private schools they should be improved, and improved now, or we are left with the feeling that the children in maintained schools are unquestionably worse off because the same regulations do not apply. This inequality of treatment in this regard is a serious issue. Almost the most important thing with tiny children is the adult-child ratio. They require considerably more help, even than five year-olds.

Although I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, recognises that there is a problem, I am bound to say to him that it would be helpful to know whether he expects this matter to be resolved in the form of the result of the consultation before the Bill completes its passage through this place.

6 p.m.

Lord Whitty: The consultation period will not necessarily be complete in terms of the Government's assessment of it in time for this Bill. Indeed, it does not relate to the guidance covered by this clause, which relates to infant classes and their size.

The noble Baroness is right. There is differential treatment as between the private and public sectors. One aspect of the consultation will examine what is appropriate for the different forms of provision. But that does not affect the position in relation to this clause. I have said that the presence of the younger four year-olds to whom the noble Baroness refers will not prejudice the attainment of the targets for infant class sizes.

The problem raised by the noble Lord is being dealt with differently through this consultation period, which will, it is to be hoped, lead to some change in the guidance relating to pre-school provision--

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page